Russia has indefinitely extended a moratorium on the death penalty that was due to expire on January 1, thereby taking one more step on a tortuous journey that began in 1996 and has the definitive abolition of capital punishment as its destination, while opinion polls suggest the majority of Russians want the death penalty to remain in use.
The death penalty issue has never been anywhere high on the agendas of the former Soviet Union, nor has it been a widely debated topic in post-Soviet Russia. Nevertheless, Russia committed itself to outlawing capital punishment in 1996 in seeking to join the Council of Europe, whose rules forbid any crime to be punished by death. Though Moscow promised to phase out the death penalty rather than place an immediate and definitive ban on it, Russia was granted Council membership in February 1996.
In May of that year, the then Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, issued a decree entitled “On the Stepwise Reduction in the Application of the Death Penalty in Connection with the Accession of Russia to the Council of Europe,” which prescribed that Russia sign Protocol Six to the European Convention on Human Rights, a document prohibiting capital punishment in peacetime. Though Russia carried out its last execution months after the decree came out, Yeltsin's order was widely seen as a de facto moratorium on the death penalty.
Russia signed Protocol Six in April 1997, but its parliament has still not approved it. The country is the only member of the 47-nation Council of Europe not to have given parliamentary ratification to the document.
A landmark decision came on February 2, 1999, when Russia's Constitutional Court imposed a de jure moratorium on capital punishment. The current version of the Russian constitution, adopted in 1993, gives anyone charged with a capital crime the right to a jury trial, a system re-introduced in Russia that year after being abolished in 1922.
Until 2010, the system only existed in parts of Russia, and the Constitutional Court's ruling of February 1999 suspended the use of the death penalty until jury trials were extended to the rest of the country. The court argued it would be unconstitutional to apply capital punishment before then.
The death penalty issue resurfaced in autumn 2009 as Chechnya, which, since 2004, had been Russia's only region not to use the jury system, was preparing to introduce it on January 1, 2010. The Supreme Court asked the Constitutional Court whether this meant the green light for bringing capital punishment back into use.
The Constitutional Court responded on November 19 with extending the 1999 moratorium indefinitely, though capital punishment remains enshrined in Russia's criminal law.
The moratorium, the court said in explaining its suspension of capital punishment, had resulted in “stable guarantees of the right of the individual not to be punished by death and [in] a constitutional regime…involving an irreversible process to abolish the death penalty,” a process that “reflects a trend in international law and is in tune with commitments made by the Russian Federation.” Moreover, the court argued, international law prescribed that Russia comply with Protocol Six as long as it has its signature under it even though its legislature has not yet approved it.
Numerous comments were posted on RuNet both before and after the Constitutional Court's ruling, and they essentially reflect the returns of opinion polls on the death penalty issue.
Very few posts state unconditional rejection of capital punishment. There are many comments where the death penalty is backed in principle but its use in Russia is opposed to because of the scale of malpractices in the Russian law enforcement system. Some of the posts support the death penalty but suggest that death sentences be deferred so that possible judicial mistakes could be corrected.
Typical arguments of advocates of capital punishment are that it works and that it is unfair to spend taxpayers’ money to keep capital offenders who are serving prison terms. Some do not believe that the possibility of innocent people being sentenced to death is a serious reason to scrap capital punishment.
One website states the position of the Russian Orthodox Church, the essence of which is that it is the public that should decide and that the death penalty is accepted in the Old Testament and is not rejected in the New Testament.
Below are some of the comments.
Laws to use the death penalty and other strict measures have not been written by totally stupid people, nor are so-called ‘our’ opinions always based on sober-minded thinking and always far-sighted when we see a problem of some kind of illegal act. That's if we are leaving judicial mistakes and the like aside… The next strictest penalty [to capital punishment] is life imprisonment, it includes providing the criminal with accommodation and food (leaving judicial mistakes aside, let me remind you again) until the end of his life regardless of how long he lives…this is money out of the taxpayer's pocket, that is from the state budget. Are you prepared to pay (as a taxpayer) for someone who has murdered half your relatives (a rough example) to go on living peacefully? (Let alone the fact that prison buildings are not made of elastic).
The Alatyshov website published several answers to the question, “What do you think of the abolition of the death penalty in Russia?”:
They won't be sentencing the right people anyway – corruption.
I support the death penalty on condition that we have police and a judiciary ideal in all respects. But as long as Russia has the practice of people getting caught indiscriminately and the wrong people getting punished, I support the abolition of the death penalty.
The death penalty is necessary in exceptional cases. I do support it [as punishment] for exceptionally serious crimes that have been committed repeatedly, provided there is convincing evidence!!!
Death penalty or no death penalty, there were, there are and there will be crimes. That's the way the world is made and the way man is made.
Bad idea!!!!!!!!! Those bastards should be [bumped off].
There are 63 comments on the Russian-language website of radio station Voice of America. Here are some of them:
If the state gives up its right to “blood” – its right to put criminals to death, people may go back to blood feuds. It's wrong to confuse the notion of judicial mistakes with that of fair retribution. If anyone has any doubts, let them ask the people through a referendum. The Constitution and Criminal Code allow this form of punishment.
All the people – if that's the right word – who have committed acts punishable by death end up being released in 10, 15 or a maximum of 20 years’ time and live among us (bloody militants, sex maniacs, serial murderers). Those pseudo-humans again sow evil because of your humaneness and your acute sense of justice.
[The death penalty] is absolutely necessary! Yes, there may be mistakes, but someone who hasn't yet embarked [on a criminal path] will wonder whether it's worth doing so when they've seen what has happened to some brute of that kind. In Russia the stick has always worked better than the carrot – all the latter has been able to produce is more lawlessness – and that's why we have all this rampant corruption!
Death should only be the penalty for bribery and embezzlement by state officials. Corruption will then disappear in a jiffy and without a trace.
‘Yes’ to the death penalty without any alternatives. But with a five-year deferment of the execution of sentences in case there has been a judicial mistake. EXECUTION must come after that.
Yes, there are mistakes – it is human to err, – but I don't want to feed characters such as Chikatilo [Andrei Chikatilo, a notorious Soviet serial murderer executed in Russia in 1994], who live off the money that I pay the state as taxes. So one would think it's a very complex issue.
I SUPPORT THE DEATH PENALTY. AFTER ALL, THERE ALWAYS ARE INNOCENT PEOPLE [WHO GET CONVICTED], BUT IN THAT WAY WE WOULD AT LEAST GET RID OF ALL SORTS OF TRASH. I DON'T WANT TO PAY TAXES FOR THEM TO BE KEPT [IN PRISON] FOR LIFE. LET THIS MONEY GO TO THE DISABLED, ORPHANS – ALL THOSE WHO ARE NEEDY, IN A WORD.
If Russia lifts its moratorium on the death penalty, it will sink even lower in the eyes of Europe. No nation will have anything to do with it. We mustn't do this, otherwise we'll go back to traditions of medieval savagery.
The death penalty is a vestige of cannibalism and savagery. We are a civilized nation, and for this reason we must not use the death penalty if we want to be humans and not animals. It seems you live in the Middle Ages.
Ya Russky [“I Am Russian”]:
I live in RUSSIA, not in Europe. I support the death penalty – I'm against murderers, pedophiles, terrorists, against people who commit high treason, against those who have ruined the country and created ethnic strife.
Dear supporters of the death penalty, there is something I want to tell you. What are your reasons for advocating the lifting of the moratorium? What makes you think that capital punishment is necessary? To administer justice? But is MURDER a just form of retaliation for a serious crime? No, it is not, because execution is nothing else than sanctioned murder. I assume that the purpose of criminal punishment is punishment and not correction, and in that case execution is no punishment because a dead person cannot be punished.
The Decalog XXI section of LiveJournal cites the Russian church's position on the death penalty as stated in the “Social Principles of the Russian orthodox Church.”
Deacon Andrei Kurayev, a theologian and a professor at the Moscow Theological Academy, sums it up as follows:
The Old Testament prescribes the death penalty. The New Testament does not abolish it, not really reasserting it, but not abolishing it either.
The death penalty was used in the Church history of subsequent ages and in the history of Christian states such as the Byzantine and Russian empires. This means that we can say that it is wrong to try to give man external liberation that is greater than his inner liberation. It turns out that today's society is not ready for the abolition of the death penalty. For this reason, we state today that, on the one hand, we do not demand the abolition of the death penalty, but that, on the other hand, the Church is open to supporting a public movement for the abolition of the death penalty. But ultimately, the Church does not seek to force its position on the entire society. It expects a decision that is based on the consensus of the entire society.
Decalog also quotes the head of the church, Patriarch Kirill, as saying, in part:
We find no ban on the death penalty in Holy Scriptures, the Holy Tradition or the historical legacy of the Orthodox Church. Moreover, in the Old Testament times this form of punishment for various crimes was directly established by God. Let me add that the Lord Jesus Christ did not protest against the death penalty being used against Him or against others even after He had been condemned to death and was suffering on the cross. Attempts by some religious, and especially public, figures to put a theological basis under the abolition of the death penalty have no solid ground under them.
[However,] the Russian Orthodox Church hails any governmental moves to abolish the death penalty or avoid its practical use.